I Write Lies for a Living

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2015-09-20 – I write lies for a living. No lie. People I’ve said this to say, “No, Steve, what you write is not meant to deceive.” But what I write is very definitely meant to deceive.

I write multiple-choice questions.

That’s not all I write, of course. I write online courses for adults. So there’s the content of the course that I try to keep free of lies. But then there are the quizzes and exams. Being online, we need a simple way to grade questions, so we use multiple choice, usually with four answer options. Most questions I write are in the form:

Which of the following is true?

A. Lie
B. Lie
C. Truth
D. Lie

In the test writing biz we call the questions “items” and we call the lies “distractors.” Oh, what a slippery slope! Three quarters of what I write is lies.

You might be surprised to learn that the hardest part of writing a good multiple-choice question is writing convincing lies (i.e., distractors). If you can easily see through the lies, you’ll answer my question with no trouble. I want you to have at least a little trouble. I want to deceive you.

Quizzes and exams are not the only place where multiple-choice questions are used. They are also used in surveys. Did you ever see a headline like this?

23% of Americans Think Elvis Was the Third President of the U.S.?

Well don’t believe it. The test-takers are not stupid, the test-writer is. Statistics like this come from questions like this:

Who was the third President of the United States?

A. George Washington
B. Thomas Jefferson
C. Barack Obama
D. Elvis Presley

The Elvis distractor is a signal to the test-taker that the test is not serious. So nearly a quarter of them select the ridiculous “lie” and then headline writers have their “proof” that people are stupid.

Multiple-choice questions are used for everything from the U.S. census to college entrance exams. And the reliability of these information-gathering devices all depends on how good the lies are.

Your child’s chance of getting into a good college depends on some test-writer writing believable lies and your child’s ability to separate the lies from the truth.

In all fairness, questions for high-stakes tests are supposed to be vetted so that questions that elicit Elvis as a 19th century president are weeded out. But the truth is that multiple-choice testing is used because it is cheap, not because it is good.

No lie.

* * *

While we are on the topic of lies, I want to remind everyone that October 1 is Diogenes Day, the day we honor truth telling. The antithesis of April Fool’s Day. If you want to learn more about Diogenes Day, click here.

* * *

You say/I say—

A. Yes
B. No
C. Hello
D. Goodbye

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